Northwest pilots accept pay cuts
By Jewel Gopwani
Detroit Free Press
By Jewel Gopwani
DETROIT — Pilots at Northwest Airlines accepted a contract yesterday that cuts their wages for the next 5 1/2 years.
Northwest must now focus on its immediate challenges of finalizing deals with two more unions and securing federal legislation the airline says would save its pension plans.
The new pilots contract will save Northwest about $360 million a year through wage cuts and new work rules that reduce sick pay. The pact also allows Northwest to start its own commuter carrier.
But before the nation's fourth-largest carrier can see those savings it must solidify concessionary terms with flight attendants and ramp workers.
Northwest flight attendants on Sunday start a month of voting on their deal, which cuts pay 21 percent.
On May 15, Northwest will ask a bankruptcy judge to throw out the ramp workers contract so the company could impose its own terms. Ramp workers in March rejected their contract proposal.
For passengers, the pilots' decision has eliminated the threat of a strike by Northwest's 5,000 pilots, which could have forced Detroit Metro Airport's largest airline out of business. Northwest carries six of every 10 passengers who start their trips there. The pilots contract passed with 63 percent of pilots voting for it.
Pilots "get to work under the worst contract that most pilots have ever seen in their careers," said Mark McClain, chairman of the Air Line Pilot Association's top council.
In a statement, Northwest CEO Doug Steenland said, "ALPA's contract ratification is a major step in ensuring the long-term success of our airline."
The deal continues a temporary 24 percent pay cut pilots took in November, with small raises starting in 2008.
That's on top of a 15 percent pay cut pilots voted to take in December 2004, intended to help Northwest avoid bankruptcy protection.
Northwest ended up filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2005, seeking to cut its labor costs by $1.4 billion.
In one of the most heated issues of the negotiations, the new contract allows Northwest to start a commuter carrier that can fly up to 90 jets with as many as 76 seats.
Furloughed Northwest pilots and flight attendants will have first shot at jobs at the new company, called Compass Airlines.
The outcome yesterday disappointed young pilots who fly Northwest's fleet of DC9s. The company wants Compass' fleet to replace those planes, which are an average of 34 years old.
McClain said pilot retirements during the next few years should allow DC9 pilots to move up to larger aircraft and avoid being displaced by Compass.
In addition to pilots, Northwest's gate and ticket agents, along with three of its smaller unions have agreed to concessionary contracts.